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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 23:00 GMT
Concerns over AIL's future
Niall Malone
Niall Malone helped Harlequins to the Ulster Senior Cup

BBC Northern Ireland Rugby correspondent Jim Neilly says that All-Ireland League clubs could be without their best players for up to eight matches

Four months into the season, Ireland's premier club competition finally gets underway amid serious concerns about its short and long-term future.

With Ireland's top players contracted to the IRFU at either national or provincial level, many clubs will find themselves without their representative players for seven or eight AIB weekends.

Irish coach Warren Gatland will have first call on their services.

He is certain to instruct key players to avoid AIB games, especially coming up to and including the 2001 Six Nations Championship campaign.

Clubs worried

These demands, plus the likely introduction of the Celtic League at the start of the 2001-2002 season, will take top players from clubs for all but a handful of games.

Clubs are genuinely worried that the absence of their stars will result in diminished crowds, reduced levels of sponsorship, and serious reductions in revenue, all at a time when every club in Ireland is struggling financially.

The IRFU says it will review the situation.

However, while the clubs acknowledge that the success of the national and provincial sides is the priority, they worry that the source of players for those representative sides could be ignored.

In-form Malone

For the first time since the 1996-7 season Ulster has three teams in the top division with the newly formed Belfast Harlequins joining Ballymena and Dungannon.

The amalgamation of NIFC and Collegians has proved successful with Harlequins winning the Ulster Senior Cup on November 24.

Brad Free
Brad Free: Part of Ballymena's Ulster contingent

However, they will find playing in AIB's top flight an altogether tougher prospect than defeating a Dungannon side missing ten representative players.

The arrival of Ulster prop and hooker Clem Boyd and Richie Weir to join Simon Best has given Harlequins one of the best front rows around.

With experienced half backs in Andy Matchett and the in-form Niall Malone also available, there is some serious talent on offer, but Harlequins face a demanding start.

First up is an away clash against Cork Constitution followed by games against four-times winners Shannon (home) and Ballymena (away).

Ballymena reached last year's semi-finals, losing to eventual champions St. Mary's in an exciting game at Templeogue.

Ballymena's loss of former Irish captain Dion O'Cuinneagain will be lessened by the arrival of his Ulster replacement Russell Nelson
  Jim Neilly

With newly capped Irish international Gary Longwell at the helm once again, Ballymena hope to go at least one better.

The loss of former Irish captain Dion O'Cuinneagain who has returned to South Africa to complete his medical studies will be lessened by the arrival of his Ulster replacement Russell Nelson.

With Brad Free, Mark Blair, Shane Stewart and James and Derek Topping all back from representative duties, Ballymena's coach Andre Bester will be expecting to pick up maximum points against De La Salle Palmerston in the opening game at Eaton Park.

Like Bester, Dungannon's Director of Rugby Willie Anderson has had to negotiate the first part of the season without his IRFU contracted players.

David Humphreys
David Humphreys: Key Dungannon player

While most of them are now available, Dungannon face an unenviable trip to Galwegians without international threequarters Ryan Constable of Australia, and Ireland's Jonathan Bell and Tyrone Howe.

Dungannon will be relying heavily on Ulster captain David Humphreys and his scrum-half Stephen Bell to utilise possession supplied by the forwards.

The Stevenson Park club will be boosted by the return of Irish hooker Allen Clarke following a serious leg injury while seasoned campaigners Paddy Johns and Justin Fitzpatrick are also back in harness.

The presence of Irish 'A' international Tony McWhirter and Under-21 international Ronan Kearney, a new arrival from UCD, means Dungannon will boast a formidable pack.

The forwards will be tested even more when Dungannon play their first home game a week later against champions St Mary's who will bring Malcolm O'Kelly, Victor Costello and Denis Hickie to Stevenson Park. 

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See also:

26 Nov 00 |  Rugby Union
O'Shea faces three month lay-off
24 Nov 00 |  Northern Ireland
Belfast Harlequins lift Senior Cup
24 Nov 00 |  Northern Ireland
Pope for Ulster job?
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